2008 Syrah Symposium; Santa Ynez Valley, California

2008 Syrah Symposium; Santa Ynez Valley, California

American producers of Rhône variety wines are a calm and patient lot. They have to be. Absent a big publicity push, American wine drinking preferences change only slowly. Reports of health benefits for red wines caused an explosion in demand for Merlot in the 1990s; a wine-oriented buddy movie (the reader can guess I didn't care for it) did the same for Pinot Noir in the 2000s. The hype didn't help the general quality of either wine. The hope among producers of Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and other Rhône varietals is that a rising tide—the US is soon projected to become the world's largest consumer of wine on an absolute basis—will raise all boats. In the meantime they continue in their efforts to marry grape with land and climate. To make the task much more interesting, according to winemaker John Freeman of Waterbrook Winery of Walla Walla Washington, “Syrah is a grape that responds well to winemaking manipulation, the diametric opposite of Pinot Noir.” The bottom line: Syrah is a complicated subject indeed.

The 2008 Syrah Symposium, underwritten by E. & J. Gallo Winery, took place at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott and several nearby wineries this April. Of the seven vintners represented on the panel, the self-taught (and Napa-born) Freeman of Waterbrook was the only non-Californian. Beckmen Vineyards, Zaca Mesa Winery, Bridlewood Estate Winery, and Stolpman Vineyards represented the Santa Ynez Valley and nearby regions in Santa Barbara County, with Sam Spencer from Napa's Spencer Roloson and Bill Easton from Domaine de la Terre Rouge in the Sierra Hills rounding out the panel. Joe Spellman, Chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers, acted as a skilled emcee for both the general and the more specific tasting sessions. The Symposium brought plenty of opportunity to taste and spit in formal tasting circumstances—gleaming glasses lined up in precise phalanxes—and a number of receptions and dinners that allowed the important wine-swallowing function to come into play.

My first emotion, however, at the Monday evening welcome reception, outdoors at Beckmen, was cold, shivering cold. The Santa Ynez Valley is unique on the Pacific coast (the whole coast, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska) in offering an east-west rather than a north-south aspect that allows cold Pacific air to scoop in from the sea; the further east you go, the hotter the climate. A frost had hit the night before, causing a few of the winemakers, including Steve Beckmen, to lose nights of sleep (areas further north like Napa and Sonoma had also been badly hit). It seemed a drinking rather than tasting milieu (and the excellent buffet certainly helped).

At our Tuesday morning general breakfast session at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott, Joe Spellman discoursed on the “State of the Grape.” He called Syrah the “holy grail of grapes” the one that keeps refining and redefining itself. In the Rhône itself it struggles against wind and other elements; in California it has struggled for market penetration, but at least on California's Central Coast it is no longer a sideline to Cabernet (which doesn't take particularly well to cool climates). The Central Coast offers the gaps, bays and rivers with the changeable night and day temperature ranges that allow the grape to flourish, driving wines of varying styles. US Syrah production has quintupled over the past ten years, though sadly from a very small base. Similar climate areas around the world from Vinci in Italy to the San Antonio Valley in Chile are seeing Syrah resurgences. In Australia, the iconic Shiraz from hot climate Barossa still makes its mark, but cool climate wines from Victoria, the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale are also attracting attention. American Syrah, hence, must compete against Syrah from a host of other countries—including France, the original home of the grape (Côte Rôtie and Hermitage)—in addition to having to fight against our own Merlots, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs for domestic acceptance.

Later that morning at lovely Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards, the panel spoke on the theme of Best Viticultural Practices. We tasted pairs of wines from each of the seven wineries, focusing on slight differences in clonal selection. To greatly simplify, while cloning sheep or people may be controversial, grapevines are routinely cloned with the aim of vectoring the most desirable characteristics in terms of flavor, aroma, disease resistance, climate suitability, growing season and the like. Choice of rootstock also comes into play for similar reasons. (Once again, choice, and perhaps too much choice). None of this discussion can be considered consumer friendly, though it is all necessary to create the wines consumers gulp with little thought. Steve Beckmen's comment was perhaps typical: “A lot of the clones we planted were very new to California, so, in order to figure out what clones or selections performed to the highest quality level, we planted eight variants throughout the Purisima Mountain Vineyards….Estrella Selection, UC Davis selections 1 and 7, and ENTAV clones 174, 383, 99, 877 and 470.” Yes, I know, it's technical, but it also makes for vinous loveliness.

The other six winemakers provided similar technical guidance, though remember we were tasting these fourteen wines. A good deal of this soaked into my brain, and unfortunately a bit soaked into my shirt. I know none of this sounds sexy, but later that day I would be caught in the crossfire of a conversation with three of the winemakers—it was all clone, rootstock, brix (grape sugar level) and growing season—all about as passionate and spirited as you can imagine.

We later moved on to Bridlewood for the afternoon session, where I was to have a real treat during the between-session hiatus: a guided tasting of five 2004 Bridlewood Syrahs poured by David Hopkins, Bridlewood winemaker, himself. Bridlewood's publicity packet shows the long-haired Hopkins wedged between a surfboard he holds and an old-style VW bus. He's a fun kind of guy (hey, I used to have hair that long though not as blond) who makes serious businesslike wine. Hopkins sources grapes from all over, but the Syrah Estate, the best of the five, is 100% Bridlewood grown, with a complex nose of dark fruit, licorice, violet and oak, a delightful palate with mocha and dark chocolate, and a finish I am still enjoying. The 2004 “Blue Roan,” aged in minimal (20% new) oak is nice and fruity, with floral accents, a bit seductive and feminine in my book. Bridlewood (the only Gallo affiliate of the seven wineries by the way) was previously an Arabian horse farm and equine rehabilitation center; you see and appreciate the trappings of this in the beautiful woodwork and massive wooden doors in the winery itself.

Our afternoon session at Bridlewood—thankfully indoors—involved another fourteen Syrahs, in this case striving to show the influence of terroir on the grape. Bill Easton from Domaine de la Terre Rouge (it means “red earth”) contrasted a 2003 and a 2004 of the same wine, his Terre Rouge “High Slopes” Syrah – Sierra Foothills. The wines are blended from two high elevation (3000 feet) vineyards: Oso Loco (“Crazy Bear”), with volcanic loam soil, and Winddance Vineyard, with a granitic-based soil. Both parcels bring in large thick-skinned grapes, a quality that promotes aromatic and flavor aspects in each case, but with stronger tannins on the Oso Loco, and more fine-grained tannins on the Winddance.

“At 3,000 feet,” says Easton, a big, bluff, bear-like presence himself, “the differential temperature changes are pronounced, sometimes 40 to 50 degrees between day and night. This helps preserve acidity and extend hang time during the harvest season, when critical flavors develop. High–elevation Syrah tends to be more elegant and racier. The terroir here is expressive at lower potential alcohol levels. The wines have aromatics and flavors that go beyond the simple Syrah fruit bomb.”

Sashi Moorman, winemaker of Stolpman Vineyards, broached an entirely different issue: vine vigor. He noted that in the Rhône itself the great Syrahs are the products of steep slopes planted on decomposing bedrock, all of which is itself subject to harsh winds, and a harsh climate in general. The vigor is hence low, the wines peerless. “Syrah's innate vigor must be tempered to produce great wines. At Stolpman Vineyards, we have learned empirically that where the vigor (and consequently the yield) is naturally low, we produce our most compelling wines.” The bearded, compact, intensely serious Moorman adds even more detail: “The high pH soils (from the limestone) further constrain the vigor of Syrah, thus giving Stolpman a geological foil to counteract the relatively heavy clay soils that cover most of the estate…many of our more mature vineyards are now dry-farmed, which further enhances our ability to control vine vigor by conditioning the vines to growing under water stress.” As much as I enjoyed these wines, I mused how lucky I was not to be one of the vines themselves; talk about getting really kicked around.

We enjoyed an excellent dinner (prime rib) that night at Bridlewood, but the highlight of my Syrah experience would come the next morning, when I visited Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards and was given a personal tour of the entire property by President and CEO Brook Williams. One of the oldest vineyards in the region, Zaca Mesa benefits from its longevity in two key respects: the first, obviously, is its accessibility to old vine grapes, which tend to be low yielding. The winery's Black Bear parcel, planted in 1978, is on its own roots (rather than grafted rootstock). The second benefit to the longevity may be less obvious, but equally important: Zaca Mesa (“Zaca” in the original Chumash Indian language means “peaceful place”) enjoys a loyal base of reliable skilled labor. Zaca Mesa benefits from an ocean wind that winds through the nearby Los Alamos hills, which Brook pointed out had been the area long associated with the legend of Zorro, a heroic image we both shared from childhood. We inspected areas of frost damage, and it was interesting to see how the damage was worse at the bottoms of the slopes, since frost descends. A vineyard the size of Zaca Mesa encompasses dozens of micro-climates.

Fortunately free of labor concerns, a vexing problem in all American agriculture, Williams is still concerned with getting reliable distribution for his 30,000 case annual production. “We sell about a thousand cases a year abroad,” he explains, “in Ireland, Japan, Sweden, the UK, Benelux and Germany, basically to add value to the brand. Otherwise, we've managed to position ourselves in 48 states. We have absentee owners who give us free reign, and we've been able to invest $7 million over the past few years in vineyard development.”

A more immediate concern for Williams, perhaps not equal to that of frost damage, is animal damage. “The bears and deer sometimes crush the vines, but the real pests are the wild pigs that like to eat the grapes. Fortunately, the mountain lions are pretty good at taking care of them.” I may have reached information overload at this point (the midday sun was bearing down on my hatless head), but I had the wherewithal to resolve never to walk through the 750 acres of the Zaca Mesa property at night.


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syrah symposium

The wine is poured and tasters ready for an outdoor workshop

syrah symposium

Syrah Symposium moderator Joe Spellman gets the discussion and tasting going

syrah symposium

Thoughtful winemakers Bill Easton, John Freeman, David Hopkins and Eric Mohseni field questions

syrah symposium

Beautiful Bridlewood was once a horse rehabilitation farm

syrah symposium

Bridlewood's winemaker David Hopkins pours five choice Syrahs

syrah symposium

Hard work: Syposium members taste seven pairs of Syrah wines

syrah symposium

Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards

syrah symposium

Zaca Mesa CEO Brook Williams shows the author how a spring frost has damaged some of the vines

syrah symposium

Rows of old vines at Zaca Mesa



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